– By Patrick Ochei
The festival of ‘Igbu Awai’ is a unique and interesting aspect of the new yam festival (Iwaji) in Issele-Uku; an agrarian community within the Anioma extraction of Delta State.
The Igbu Awai is a part of the series of activities marking the eating of the new yam. The first is the celebration of the new yam festival by children (Iwaji Umuaka), then followed by non titled persons (Iwaji Ikolo) within the community.
The Igbu Awai being the celebration of the new yam festival by titled men (Ikpala) in the community, marks the acceptability of the new yam as healthy and safe staple food for eating.
It is historically believed that the first time new yam was sighted in the community, the villagers were apprehensive, suspecting that its eating might cause poisoning or death to them. To that effect, they decided to allow the children eat the new yam first, in obvious suspicion it could lead to their death. When the children could not die, the elders approved for the Ikolos, those not societally relevant in the scheme of things and not traditionally titled to eat next.
It was after the Ikolos had eaten and not died that the Ikpalas decided to eat theirs the next day. However, it was the Ikolos that were putting the yam in their mouths (Igunya ji na onu), telling them how sweet and healthy the yam was to their bodies. That is why till date, the children and the Ikolos must have eaten the new yam before the Ikpalas eat and then the king of the community.
The 2022 Igbu Awai festival in Issele-Uku was indeed an awesome one. It was an Afor Market day, and while the women had gone to buy cooking stuffs from the market, the men were left to prepare the new yam. It is usually a public show as the big pot is placed on the fire outside with people drinking and jubilating, obviously waiting with earnest desire to eat the traditional porridge (Awai).
The Awai is prepared only with red oil and salt in the first segment of the ceremony.
The second segment is the preparation of the Otite. The Otite is the roasting of the new yam, and when done, the burnt back is scraped into a mortal, pounded together with the Otite leaves and mixed with the roasted yam for eating.
The Otite is highly medicinal; it cures stomach ache and obviously eaten to prevent any side effect from the new yam.
The next segment of the festival is cooking real meal; the new yam is pounded for food and eaten with any properly prepared soup, usually pepper soup (nsala) or white egusi soup (oseani).
Meanwhile, before all these activities take place in the day, there is usually the ceremony of going to the farm to harvest the new yam for the day’s ceremony. While that is being done, the daughters of the household or family (Umuada) would carry out the cleansing of the house (Ife Unor). It is the traditional process of warding off evils from the house in order to receive the new yam into the house. They do this from house to house and they usually receive tubers of yams in appreciation for what they do.
The Igbu Awai was celebrated by most titled men across the nine villages in Issele-Uku, but the two distinct places visited were the Ogwa Ogbelani Issele-Uku and Okpalabisi Umueze Issei, Diokpa Okonkwo Isimchei and of course, Ogwa Okwalegwe Issele-Uku at Idumuinei Village where Comrade Lucky Ochei was exceptional in resonating the nitigrity of Igbu Awai festival. There were dance groups performing to spice up the ceremony.
According to Diokpa Isimchei, “Today marks the beginning of the eating of new yam by titled men (Ikpala) in Issele-Uku. The Ikolos tell us how it feels to eat the new yam by putting it in our mouths as the Okpalas.
“Every land has their traditions and culture. We have ours and it is very unique. However, we must continue to raise the bar in our tradition for the sake of posterity. Our children must embrace the sanctity of our traditions and customs.
“The new yam is wonderfully sweet and healthy to the body system. I have eaten it and I feel good. The Otite is also here; a very good recipe for the cure of stomach ache and other forms of food poisonings.
“We prayed at the beginning of the farming season, and God has answered us with bountiful harvests and healthy crops. On this note we are praying again, that God should keep us alive and healthy to successfully celebrate the coming Ine Festival, which climaxes the new yam festivals in Issele-Uku.
On the part of Comrade Lucky Ochei, he acknowledged God for the gift of life and harvest of blessings. He therefore asked God for more grace to continue to reverence him annually.